The 50 Greatest Singles: an Exercise in the Absurd

Sound Grammar

James Brown performing live in Hamburg, Germany, February 1973. Photo: Heinrich Klaffs. CC BY-SA 2.0

A couple of weeks ago, Rolling Stone, desperate for clickbait to lure in new readers, published a list of what its writers considered the 500 Greatest Singles. 500! That’s really narrowing it down. I didn’t wade my way through the entire sonic ocean, the top 50 were enough to recognize what a mess it was, list-making by advertising demographics. There seemed to be no controlling theme or even intelligence behind it, which, naturally, is emblematic of the absurdity of the project.

What is a “single”, anyway? A long extinct 45? A song that charted? Something you first heard on the radio? A song that stays floating in the stream, long after it was released?  For me a single is a hit. Not in terms of sales, but a song that hits the gut. A singular experience. A song I heard a fragment of for the first time, probably on the radio or on Soul Train, and immediately wanted to hear again, rushed to track down in Obadiah’s head shop/record store on Meridian Street in 70s Indianapolis or Olsson’s Books and Records on Wisconsin Ave. in 80s Georgetown or Music Millennium on East Burnside in 90s Portland. A song with punch, that echoes in the head. A song you never forget, never tire of hearing again. A song that changed you in ways small and profound. A song that consoled you, made you want to screw or go out and smash something.

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Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent books are Bernie and the Sandernistas: Field Notes From a Failed Revolution and The Big Heat: Earth on the Brink (with Joshua Frank) He can be reached at: or on Twitter @JeffreyStClair3

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